Fixing Your Achilles

Are one or more of these seven moves throwing a wrench into your workouts? Turn your weaknesses into strengths with the following methods.
By Chris Logan ,

Every CrossFitter has at least one, and many of us have several: those exercises that wreak havoc on WOD times and force you to scale workouts more than you’d like. Each of these pesky moves is an Achilles’ heel in your training, a seemingly insurmountable obstacle that keeps you from reaching your goals. But that stops here. It’s time to start conquering these exercises and breaking new fitness boundaries in the process. Here, we’ve highlighted a handful of the most common Achilles’ heel moves and offered specific ways to improve them so you can start wreaking a little havoc of your own.

Achilles’ Heel Exercise No. 1: Muscle-Ups

Some exercises are challenging and take a while to master, and then there are other moves you simply can’t do. For many people, muscle-ups fall into the latter category, which explains why the substitute for muscle-ups (three dips, three pull-ups) is so commonly used. “Pulling your bodyweight is difficult, and pushing your bodyweight is difficult, too,” says Mike Abgarian, owner of CrossFit King of Island Park in New York (crossfitkingofislandpark.com). “And the skill portion of kipping, doing a pull-up, doing a ring dip and then recycling is a lot of movements to think about.”

THE FIX:Abgarian offers the following steps for those who either struggle with muscle-ups or can’t do them at all:

1. Work on your false grip. (a gymnastics grip in which the wrists are positioned over the rings, thereby making the pull-up-to-dip transition easier). “We have our members work on their false grip by trying to hold that position on the pull-up bar first and then moving to the rings,” Abgarian says.

2. Perfect the kip. “Having a kip that’s perfect and biomechanically sound will help make muscle-ups a lot easier,” he says. “Make sure that you lead with your hips and that your core is tight but you remain relaxed and loose through your neck and shoulders. You should be able to stop your kip at any random time.”

3. Work on strict pull-ups and ring dips. “Do three sets of 10 reps each on pull-ups and ring dips two to three times a week,” Abgarian recommends. “As you get better at both, add some weight by using a weighted belt or vest to make it more difficult. If you’re not able to perform either, work on negatives and weighted negatives. For negative pull-ups, start with your chin over the bar and hold on as long as possible. As your chin starts to drop below the bar, try not to let your elbows reach full extension.”

Achilles’ Heel Exercise No. 2: Overhead Squats

Unlike the back squat, in which failing to complete a heavy rep is often a case of lacking lower-body strength, a weakness in overhead squatting is typically because of upper-body deficiencies. And it’s not only a matter of being strong up top; otherwise, anyone with a big bench press or military would be at an advantage with overhead squats. It’s also about range of motion.

“Poor mobility in the shoulders and thoracic spine [middleupper back], mainly due to poor posture from sitting at a desk all day, is the most common reason I notice for why people struggle with overhead squats,” says Dr. Brian Strump, owner of CrossFit Steele Creek and Premier Health & Rehab Solutions in Charlotte, N.C. (crossfitsteelecreek.com). “When using a light weight, a strong athlete might be able to overcome this, but once you start getting to three-, five- and one-rep maxes, you’re not going to be able to hold the weight up there.

THE FIX:When your overhead squat needs work, your first instinct may be to go lighter on the exercise and work your way up to more weight from there. But if poor shoulder and upper-back mobility is the problem, going light probably won’t solve it. “Going lighter is only getting you better at doing it crappy, unless it’s a matter of not being strong enough,” Strump says. “I usually give people mobility exercises to work on their posture for better shoulder range of motion and extension through the thoracic spine.”

Strump prescribes these mobility exercises, which should only take about 10 minutes to complete. Do them three to four days a week, either outside the gym or before a workout in which you’re going to be doing overhead squats.

Shoulder Pass-ThroughsHold a PVC pipe or broomstick with your hands out as wide as possible and your elbows fully extended. Keeping your arms straight, start with the pipe/stick touching the front of your thighs and slowly move it up overhead and back behind you until it nearly touches your lower back. Reverse the motion to return to the start position. Perform eight to 10 reps in this manner, then move your hands toward each other a few inches and repeat with as much range of motion as possible. Continue moving your hands closer together for another two to three sets until you’re unable to get your arms behind your head.

Peanut Stretch and Massage Tape two tennis balls together with athletic tape or roll them up tightly in a sock. Place this self-made “peanut” on the floor, lie back on it so it’s positioned about halfway down your back or slightly lower and cross your arms over your chest. From here, slowly lower your upper back to the floor and hold the stretch at the bottom for 10 to 20 seconds. Lift back up, then repeat for a total of five to 10 deliberate stretches. Next, extend your arms, clasp your hands and lower them back behind your head so that you can feel a good stretch in your shoulders. Hold this position for 10 to 20 seconds, then raise your arms to release the tension. Lower back down to repeat the stretch. Do five to 10 stretches total. Finish the drill by slowly shifting your weight side to side and up and down over the peanut for one to two minutes to massage tight back muscles.

Achilles’ Heel Exercise No. 3: Handstand Push-Ups

Handstand push-ups are difficult for the same reason a 200-pound individual has a tough time military-pressing 200 pounds: It’s simply a lot of weight to move. “Pressing your bodyweight overhead is one of the most difficult strength moves to accomplish,” Abgarian says. “Imagine standing up straight with no momentum and pressing your weight overhead.”

“Some people are just scared of going upside down, and some people can’t even get into position to do handstand push-ups,” Strump says. “But let’s figure you’re getting to the wall — it’s still a matter of shoulder stability and shoulder strength. Some people just don’t have the strength.”

THE FIX: Proper hand and shoulder position is vital. Strump recommends externally rotating the shoulders so that your fingers point away from each other when your hands are on the floor, which he says will provide more shoulder stability and produce a stronger pressing motion. “Whenever you’re going upside down, you need to make sure you have your arms completely locked out with active shoulders [at the top of motion],” Abgarian says. “A good cue is to put your shoulders to your ears and extend your elbows.”

For those unable to perform full handstand push-ups, Abgarian suggests starting from the pike position with your feet up on a box, legs extended. “Strive to raise your hips as high as you can while [your torso becomes] perpendicular to the ground,” he says. “Full-range-of-motion pike push-ups will get you that handstand push-up fast.”

Achilles’ Heel Exercise No. 4: Running

You can almost feel the collective groans of CrossFitters across the country every time “Run 400 meters” or “Run a 5K” shows up on a WOD. And one can only imagine how many precious minutes long and short runs alike have cost competitors at the Games. “Running is difficult because it’s the most stressful activity on the skeleton,” says Jason Karp, Ph.D., a San Diego-based running coach and author of the books Running for Women and Running a Marathon for Dummies. (Visit runcoachjason.com for his downloadable training programs.) “Although running is a natural human movement, if someone hasn’t grown up running, starting it as an adult is difficult. Running is also hard because endurance takes a lot longer to develop than do strength, speed and power. So when an adult who has never run before tries to run, his or her endurance sucks because he or she has neglected aerobic development.”

MORE: Run This Way

THE FIX: Karp’s advice for shaving seconds, if not minutes, off your run times is simple: Be patient and work your way up to the desired distance with shorter intervals. “Start a little at a time,” Karp says. “If you’re limited by how much you can run, mix running and walking until you’ve developed your endurance enough that you can eliminate the walking. Four-hundred-meter training and 5K training are very different — 400-meter training requires anaerobic workouts that develop speed endurance, such as fast 200-meter and 300-meter repeats with a longer recovery than the time spent running.

Achilles’ Heel Exercise No. 5: Rope Climbing 

Climbing up a 15-foot rope multiple times in a workout can be extremely taxing on the upper body, including the arms and all muscles involved with grip strength, which is why a lot of people struggle with this exercise. But if your upper body is the first thing giving out, that explains what you’re doing wrong. “Anyone who’s a good rock climber knows that the best way to get up a rock is not to pull yourself up with your back and arms but rather to push yourself up with your legs,” Strump says. “It’s the same thing with a rope. It’s much easier to drive your bodyweight up with your legs than to pull yourself up each time with your upper body.”

The muscles of the core also can exhaust quickly when scaling a rope because of the unstable nature of a long line that can sway side to side and move around wildly as you ascend upward. “It’s a heavy rope,” Strump says, “so it doesn’t take much to get that thing rocking.

THE FIX: Making sure your legs do most of the work is priority No. 1, which is why proper climbing technique entails wrapping the rope around one leg, down by the ankle, so that it sits on your foot — not squeezing the rope between the feet. “There are different techniques for wrapping the rope around the leg,” Strump says, “but the idea is to give yourself something to push off of. You’re using that bottom foot to stand up on to give you a little bit of stability up in the air.

Another way to maximize efficiency is to keep the rope as still as possible. “You don’t want the rope flying around too much, which expends more energy,” Strump says. “A lot of the movement is going to come from what you’re doing with your legs, so the more your legs swing, the more the rope will swing. As you’re climbing up and letting go of the rope with your feet, the goal is to keep the distance between your legs and the rope as short as possible. People who are really good just let the rope slide through their legs.”

Achilles’ Heel Exercise No. 6: Double-Unders

Most people at the gym are capable of jumping high enough to allow a fast-moving jump-rope to pass below their feet two times, so becoming proficient at double-unders isn’t necessarily a matter of becoming stronger and more powerful; it’s more about developing the jump-rope-specific talent that allows you to efficiently perform one double-under after another without having to constantly stop between reps. “It’s a completely new skill set for many people to learn, and it’s all coordination,” Abgarian says. “Most wrestlers and boxers have an extreme advantage with this exercise. Double-unders is one of those skill sets that the more you practice, the better you’ll be at it.”

THE FIX: If you’re terrible at double-unders, start by getting better at standard jumping rope (“single-unders,” so to speak). “We have our members become solid at regular jumping rope, then we move them to a single-single-double routine,” Abgarian says. “Once that’s spot on, we move to continuous doubles. And we always make sure people have a solid foundation of body awareness — the ability to jump up and down in one place and to keep the elbows in and palms slightly turned up when moving the rope, and lastly, making sure people use their wrists to move the rope. No big arm swings!”

Achilles’ Heel Exercise No. 7: Burpees

Everyone (practically) can do burpees, but no one seems to like them. It’s not an exercise you can brag about. People will be impressed by a big squat or a sub-five-minute “Fran,” but no one cares how many burpees you can do in 15 minutes, which makes it a thankless exercise to most. Plus, they hurt.

“It’s a gut-check exercise,” Strump says. “There’s really no trick to doing burpees better. You can’t really use momentum to help, like on some other exercises. It’s not like a snatch or deadlift, where an athlete may bounce the bar off the floor to create momentum for the next rep. With burpees, you get down to the ground and there’s nothing there to help you. It’s one of those exercises where you know you’re going to have to suffer. It’s just a grinding, monotonous move.”

THE FIX: There’s not much you can do to make burpees any easier or less painful. But these tips from Strump can make a brutal move slightly more efficient:

1. Stay tight and breathe right. “Every time I hit the ground, I contract everything — chest, core — and I’m bouncing right back up,” Strump says. “I tighten up my stomach like I’m about to lift something heavy, and when my stomach hits the floor, I’m exploding up out of the bottom and breathing out. I’m essentially having the floor knock the wind out of me every rep.”

2. Power your push-ups. “Plyometric or clapping push-ups apply directly to burpees, so working on those will allow you to generate more power coming off the ground and help increase efficiency. Do three to four sets of eight to 10 reps of plyo push-ups a couple days a week — but not before doing burpees in a WOD. Do them on a day off.”

3. Perfect your landing position. “Land in the most efficient, powerful position for getting back up — your feet together (not spread wide apart) and hands in a good push-up position directly beneath you. You shouldn’t just be flopping on the ground.”

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